Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.48.18 PM
I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

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Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????


I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.15.31 PM
***
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.

 

Third Places & Third Spaces – #DigPed PEI

Part the first: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet (Kinda)

I come from a small place.

Seen from Google Earth, Prince Edward Island is a dot off the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a pastoral sandbar best known for lobster, potato farms, and Anne of Green Gables. I left in a hurry at seventeen. I often say if you’d told me then that I’d move back willingly someday, I would have spat on you.

But I did move back. Mid-life is a funny thing: I now live a block away from my mother and call myself lucky, which is not the word seventeen-year-old me would have deployed. And from tiny Prince Edward Island, I’ve spent the past decade learning more than I ever imagined there was to learn about the operations of the global apparatus that is contemporary higher ed. More, I benefit from a richer, more robust circle of colleagues and fellow educators and learners than I’ve had at any other time in my life.

This is, in large part, because the internet became my local hangout.

(Yes, the internet is – as we are regularly informed by headlines, and not inaccurately – a fraught and messy place. Yes, the internet and its cloistered cousins, learning platforms and management systems, can be tools by which learning gets reduced and instrumentalized and commodified beyond recognition, if we’re not careful. Yes.)

But it can also be what Howard Rheingold was clever enough back in 1993 to recognize as a form of Oldenburg’s “third place;” a space for conviviality, playfulness, community, and “appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Like a coffee shop, bar, general store, library or arcade, a third place is a semi-public (often partially commercial) space that extends human community beyond the boundaries of home and work – a local hangout, as it were.

Howard’s assertions about the internet as inherently social were initially just stories I read, about places like The WELL and MUDs and MOOs, virtual frontiers that had mostly receded or disappeared by the time I even learned they existed. But I read them, and they stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of digital culture and my emerging practices as an online educator, even back in 1999. They planted a seed that suggested that the internet could be more than the glorified calculator and search engine and email machine I was gradually becoming familiar with. They opened the door to the idea that the internet might be a place to learn and engage and develop identity and friendships. That seed took years to take hold, but in the end, it is one of the concepts that has made the greatest difference in my life, professionally and personally.

Far more recently, in 2014, Catherine Cronin expanded my understanding of the third place by introducing me to Gutierrez’ somewhat more complex, political conception of “Third Space (2008).” The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”

In other words, the Third Space is a potentially transformative space between the roles of student and teacher, a hybrid space where identities and literacies and practices can actually change on both sides. In a Third Space approach to education, what Gutierrez frames as a cosmopolitan in-between-ness marked by “shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange where difference is celebrated without being romanticized” is core to learning design.

This Third Space is not the small place I grew up. But somewhere in seventeen years of the small-town classrooms I sat in from kindergarten through my undergrad, a few teachers, books, and Rolling Stone articles somehow nurtured some tiny kernel of Third Space in me. And then I spent my early adulthood looking for the third place where it could flower.
***

Part the second: There and Back Again

I thought for a long time it was probably in Prague.

I barely crossed Canada’s borders until my very late twenties. But for a decade after the Velvet Revolution, all over Canada’s more humbly regional towns, I pined for Prague. Not because I actually had much of a clue about Prague, but because I’d gotten the idea that it was the closest thing to Paris in the 20s that I was ever going to lay my grubby provincial paws on. And so I bought old travel guides at used bookstores and I read about absinthe and Vaclav Havel and I pored over picture after picture of ornate birthday-cake buildings. In one case the guide was so old it was for Czechoslovakia and not the Czech Republic, and so I learned mostly about the Soviet monuments of Prague.

But had I not already had some instinctive, hothouse-flower-cultivated sense that a Third Space/third place Elsewhere was out there having all the good conversations without me, that old sad, dog-eared Fodor’s guide might have served to foster my impression of Prague simply as an exotic, historic collection of pictures I could take someday.

When we humans fetishize something we have not yet experienced, we tend to reduce it to its instrumental, transactional elements. We imagine we understand, but we not only fail, we often do violence to actual lived experience in our insistence on our understanding. This is why immersion and perspective-taking and reflection are such powerful learning tools: they destabilize our known spaces, our first spaces, and force us to live through the experience of altering our perspective.

I eventually got to live that experience, though it – inevitably, I suppose – changed my fetishized vision of what Third Space would be. I made it to Prague one November at almost thirty, and took a pile of pictures, sure, but also stumbled into conversations late at night in underground bars and street festivals that opened my access to perspectives I’d never encountered before. I stayed abroad for five years. I went to Korea and braved slam poetry for the first time. I sat in hostels and coffee shops in Turkey and Malaysia and Scotland, people-watching and talking to strangers. All through the process, I taught people and lived among people and befriended people who had grown up in cultures and education systems very different from my own small place.

And after five years of itinerancy and inbetween-ness, I concluded there was no ideal Elsewhere, no single third place that encapsulated the Third Space I’d longed for. Or rather, perhaps – as an old friend used to say – that wherever you go, there you are. In the end, I came home to PEI.

The talking to strangers was harder here. But then I found my way online.
***

Part the Third / Space / Place: #DigPed PEI

Gutierrez’ concept of the Third Space has little to do with the internet or with digital education, though she talks about it as being mediated by a range of tools. Catherine Cronin’s work on networked publics has drawn from both third place and Third Space ideas, as has Kathrine Jensen’s.

For me, all three – combined with Howard situating digital community within Oldenburg’s third place construct – speak to the potentiality of the internet as a human in-between space that enables third place collegiality combined with the hybrid positionality and perspective-taking of Third Space. A perspective always larger than the local, while deeply embedded within whatever particular context it has sprung from; a hybrid perspective never fully subsumed into the thick of things.

This is what I aim for when I teach, and when I work with educators around digital technologies and digital practices. This is the hope I brought to Egypt with me last week for our #DigPed institute at the American University of Cairo.

It was hope more than fulfilled. I sat at tables with people who speak from a multitude of locales and perspectives and embodied histories, truly in a Third Space. Our work served to network some of them into conversations that take place in my online third place, and reciprocally, to give me a window into their contexts and classrooms, where they choose to share. I tweeted with one participant’s class in Beirut just this morning.

Still, when I first came across the idea of the internet as a third place, I hadn’t yet experienced much in the way of online community or conviviality. It was only later that blogs and social networking platforms began to extend my social world and community by thousands of kilometres. When I read Howard’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, I was very much the same person who read travel guides to countries she’d never been to and thought of them as collections of pictures to be taken.

My reductive, task-based understanding stemmed, at least for me, simply from not being able to imagine the full depth of what I had not yet experienced.

And I wonder if maybe a similar reductive failure of imagination informs a great deal of the dominant narrative critiquing digital engagement, particularly the cries of “screens are making us less connected!” that Sherry Turkle et al publish regularly in the New York Times. Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.

As I see it, we need third places – and Third Spaces – in order to grapple with the complexities of education and learning in an unequally globalized society driven by logics of media and capital.

So as a small start, this coming July, we’re bringing the three-day Digital Pedagogy Lab institute model home to my small place.

What I’m aiming to seed with #DigPed PEI is three-fold:

  1. To do what Howard did for me in opening up the concept of the internet and the digital as a human, social, third place environment where learning could take place.
  2. To scaffold the immersive equivalent of hanging out in Prague rather than reading reductive guidebooks, by curating participants’ experiential entry INTO actual human, social, educative third places ON the internet itself, in ways they can then apply to their contexts and their personal and professional practices. If they want. If they don’t, at least they’ll be making a choice informed by an experiential understanding of possibility, rather than by dominant narratives.
  3. To invite the denizens of my third place to experience this small place, which I think has much to offer, even beyond beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The lived experience of a town where “who’s your father?” remains the staple second question after “what’s your name?” is good preparation for the strange mix of hypervisibility and “is this thing on?” that marks networked engagement. The small scale of the educational system in this province offers an opportunity to get educators together from all three – for there are ONLY three – educational entities in the province to build ties and conversations in ways that can’t happen in the same way in larger centres. And as a hardscrabble, regional place on the margins of North American identity yet still utterly privileged as part of the global North, this site is…a little different. Too often, the third space of English-speaking networked scholarship and educational practice is profoundly US-centric. We don’t have FERPA here. Education is a provincial rather than federal matter. A conversation here is never entirely removed from the dominant North American conversation, but neither is it entirely encapsulated by it. We have the makings of a Third Space, maybe. I can hope.

And our dollar is dismally cheap right now. Just sayin’. ;)

***
If you’d like to hold a space for yourself in #DigPed PEI, fill out this handy pre-registration form by April 30th. We’ve been delighted by interest so far. 

And if you can’t join us in person but want to contribute to the conversation, there will be a #DigPed discussion on digital literacies – and third places and spaces – Friday April 8th at noon EDT (1pm PEI time!).

#dLRN15 – Making Sense of Higher Education

I sat at a lunch table earlier this week with some friends and colleagues at my institution and accidentally started a rousing conversation…about conferences.

I asked: What do conferences need to DO to be…valuable?

We all had different answers. In fact, we were perhaps in entirely separate conversations.

One staff colleague, affiliated with an association with an established and funded annual conference, said that conferences need to help get people into the learning/working mindset once the great annual social gathering is convened.

I can see that.

Other staff colleagues, whose positions are not affiliated with associations or any established conferences, but who have access to some annual or bi-annual funding, had a different response. Theirs focused on relevance and how they could find conversations aimed at giving them new conceptual tools while still recognizing that they have systems and practical limits they need to work within.

I could see that too.

Had we just reached out over the cafeteria benches to the rest of our colleagues around us, what other responses would we have gotten?

For faculty, sharing their work and research, both in sessions and in conversations with peers from different contexts, would’ve likely factored high.

For sessional or adjunct colleagues – whose $500 annual institutional budget for conference reimbursement is unlikely to even get many TO a major conference let alone reimburse registration or scholarly association or hotel or food fees – yet who also need to share their work and see what’s shaking up their fields in order to play in the academic prestige economy game of hoping to make more than 20k a year someday, the response might’ve mostly been laughter. Or weeping.

Same for the grad students.

Administrators might have had multiple different answers. I’m cynical enough to assume some would have been about the expense of conferences. I’ve been to enough conferences to half-nod and call that justified. I’m not so cynical as to think there aren’t other, strategic and vision-related answers that might have emerged from those corners.

I can see all those positions.

And then some of us in that cafeteria don’t even register on this list. Right now, I hold two separate part-time roles for which conference travel is not an official part of the budget. At this juncture, I pretty much go as an invited speaker or not at all. This is great work if you can get it, admittedly. However, when your jobs do not include “academic service” and one of them doesn’t include vacation, you come home and make up the days and time lost, which is rather like embodying the summit and the nadir of academic status simultaneously. And it’s not a position that’s often visible from the outside.

It’s hard to hold all our myriad perspectives in view, at once. Yet all of us in that cafeteria the other day – and many more, standing in spots I haven’t managed to articulate – are higher ed professionals.

We are, all of us, the people Raul Pacheco-Vega is referring to when he says “we need to rethink academia, but collectively.”

So I asked What do conferences need to DO? because I was thinking about re-thinking academia collectively. I was thinking about taking our conversations beyond Twitter and responses to op-eds we don’t control…I was thinking about making online ed more than training wheels, to quote Jonathan Rees; I was thinking that somewhere in the overall answer is the possibility that all the above groups and more end up sitting at the same tables, talking to each other about change, fulfilling at least a bit of all the purposes, all the answers.

I was thinking, basically, you should come to #dLRN15: Making Sense of Higher Education. If you can at all.

***
#dLRN15 – which will take place at Stanford on October 16th & 17th, 2015 – aims to “explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy.”

Ambitious, definitely. But worth a shot.

We have Adeline Koh and Mike Caulfield and Marcia Devlin all coming in as keynotes.

We’re trying to explore five strands of conversation through the lenses of networks and change:

  • The ethics of collaboration
  • Individualized learning
  • Systemic impacts
  • Innovation and work
  • Sociocultural Implications

We’re trying to make it about re-thinking academia collectively. We want “stakeholders” and grad students on the same panels. We want “research” outputs central but voluntary, because not all valuable contributions are formalized as research. We want Works-in-Progress. We want connections and a social gathering and recognition of limits and recognition of contributions…and we want to make good use of people’s time.

We want you.

Yes, you. You, the staff member. You, the professor. You, please, the adjunct and the grad student and the non-institutional scholar and the otherwise-contingent member of the academy – we have significantly-reduced rates for all of the above. You, the administrator. You, the person who doesn’t know what table you fit at.

We want all the things conferences are for, under one roof. We want to talk about higher ed, and futures, and how we can all learn to hear each other and make sense of it all.

I don’t know if we can do all that conferences need to do to be valuable. But we will try.

Submit your 250 word abstract by June 1st to join us. And if you’d like to help us review submissions and make this conversation as rich as it can be, click here.

I look forward to it.

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

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Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.
***

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

do you know networks? on leaving the Garden of Eden

Today, class, we’re going to talk about networks. And education. And power relations. Yes, again. I KNOW. You poor lambs.

I fear becoming a proselytizer. The good people who show up at my door asking if I know Jesus are not my people. I like doubters, complications, ideas that break down assumptions and build toward further questions, not answers.

And yet every time I introduce the topic of networks I feel as if I inch a little closer to preaching to the self-selected network choir and ONLY the network choir and I worry. Preaching is not the work I set out to do. Rather, I want to dig, to lay out ideas, to build new ideas. I am ever-tempted by the Tree of Knowledge. But – and this is my problem, perhaps, a problem shared by my entire household…or at least its members over four feet tall – I no longer think it is a tree.

I have thought, for ten years since I first read Deleuze and Guattari and mentioned them in passing to Dave Cormier in a long-distance phone booth call from Switzerland to Korea, that it is a rhizome. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple, in my belief systems.

It is a weed.

Yet I was raised by the tidy gardeners and the pesticide companies and the folks who built enclosures for weedy ideas, locking them in like dandelions under glass. And likely, dear reader, so were you.

I talk about networks not to try to convert you…but to try to understand the limits of the systems we were raised in. To understand what is happening now that structure of those systems and their institutions no longer describes the structure of information flow in our society. To understand how and why the powers-that-be still rely, structurally, on those systems’ totalizing capacity. To ask how it has come to be that participatory networked practices are more likely to be framed as threats than opportunities for education in the 21st century. And to wonder who benefits from that framing.

(Okay, maybe I am trying to convert you, a little. Only because the Eden we thought we grew up in is gone.)
***

I chose a profession I initially understood in terms of tidy gardener and encloser roles: I became a teacher. I wanted to get as close to the Tree of Knowledge as I could, and to bring others into that garden. But teaching is messy: it bears little resemblance to distributing apples in Eden. I taught Inuit high school students from a social studies curriculum in which their people and their history did not appear at all; I taught GED adult learners in a back room in a tiny rural schoolhouse where many of them had learned, as children, that they were not made to succeed in school. The desks were too small for all of us. The metaphorical apples clunked on the floor. My students had long ago learned to distrust apples.

It was through weeds that I reached them, any of them, to whatever extent I reached them: informal threads snaking from one human to another. They were not Eves waiting to eat. Our learning happened underground, snaking underneath the formal level of the curriculum. Tentative connections, in multiple directions. I tried to design learning experiences, but I did not control them. Most often it was me who learned: variations on How Not To Fail The Same Way Twice.

I began to understand that my concepts of success and failure were stacked around a very narrow stream of life options and legitimacy. I began to sense the edges of what Knobel & Lankshear (2006) call “the deep grammar of schooling,” the institutionalization of my own thoughts and conceptual tools. I began to think of print as an educational problem for my students, not a solution.

My issue was not with the technology of letters per se. I love print as text, the ways its technology of letters allows for skimming and floating and starting in the middle.

My critique was for the culture of print: the Truths we use it to reinforce and regulate and reify.

My Masters thesis (2000) led me to think about the ways print works, about the ways in which the technologies of a given time shape what it means to know in that time. Things written in print are either finished or not. They do not blend into each other; they do not create webs. They create canons, privileging some over others and erasing the steps of their logic so as to make it all appear natural. They encourage us to see knowledge as finite and discrete; truth as singular, sanctioned. Our cultural attachment to the idea of knowledge as arboreal, tree-like, apple-whole: this is based in print, in The Good Book itself and moreso, in the very idea of The Good Book. Yet this Eden of high print culture, so deeply embedded in Enlightenment ideals of binaries and taxonomies, has never really had apples for everybody.

Dave Cormier’s #rhizo14 course this week is taking on the limitations of print in a Nicholas Carr parody titled “Is books making us stupid?” Risky, that. Even those of us who have spent years unpacking all the ways that print as a medium hardens and solidifies knowledge are still culturally conditioned to love books. *I* love books. When Dave announced the title for this week’s theme, I laughed and winced and hoped no offended book enthusiasts would feel it necessary to beat him about the head with a dictionary.

I don’t think books make us any stupider currently than we always have been. But even as we cling to our bookshelves of beloved companions with their dusty pages and their old-book smell, it behooves us to consider the ways in which print has shaped us societally towards institutionalization and compliance, the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling is written in print.

Because we are conditioned think of books not as technologies of paper, with particular affordances, but as representations of human good.

It’s true that until the last generation, books stood as the epitome of human capacity to share knowledge. Books were bastions against ignorance…symbols of freedom of thought against repression and enclosure. But…and this is important…it was the free exchange of ideas and communications we valorized in that Enlightenment ideal. Not actually the small yet increasingly commodified paper packet. Yet we conflated the two. And in the process, we allowed the grammar of schooling to reinforce a Romantic identification of books, in particular, with all things noble about humanity.

And that’s a mistake, because for all that good and that beautiful, undeniable history, books and their affordances – their action possibilities – are part of a complex economic system just as digital technologies are, and create mindsets that can be as limiting as they are freeing.

Books teach us implicitly that the culmination of writing as an act of communications is a product, not a conversation; a finite rather than a fluid thing. Books teach us that the one speaks to the many, but the many cannot speak back and be heard.

Education as a system is built upon and relies on the taxonomic, hierarchic structures print reinforces. It relies on people learning their places within those structures. Education is historically both a product and a producer of a deeply-embedded command and control society, as Matt Reed pointed out in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week. Now, networks have power relations too…networks can amplify inequality just as they amplify everything else. But their power relations are less fixed, more quixotic. They can cause harm, absolutely. But our conversations about that harm and about throwing one’s life away with a tweet seldom take up the harm that institutionalized power relations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism enact upon people every day. Those are the power relations naturalized by The Book and the deep grammar of schooling it is embedded in.

And here’s the thing. Perhaps that was, arguably, the best we could do. At least until knowledge and information exceeded the scarce and weighty bonds of paper and the distribution structures of shipping through time and space. It is no longer the best we can do. It is no longer WHAT most of us do, in our day to day lives. Yet the institutions and gatekeepers of the old Eden struggle to adapt and maintain the familiar balance of power by convincing us we are still better off relying, passive and trusting, on their noblesse oblige than on each other.

I do not think we should throw out our books. I am not such a network evangelist that I want what books have stood for to fall away from us, as humans. But nor do I want that to remain the limit of our vision.

Because in a world of information abundance, the walled Garden of Eden it reified is…gone. It cannot be brought back. Those who sell us a simulacra of its glories are only propping up the power relations of the past.

That Eden of *real* print culture is only a Potemkin village now, no matter how the gardeners and the pesticide companies would like to gain control back over the weeds. Let us leave the apples behind, and see what those weeds can reap.